Bruce Wayne is Batman. Clark Kent is Superman. Tony Stark is Ironman. Peter Parker is Spiderman.
And so it goes. Throughout the various multiverses, numerous superheroes have maintained alter-egos, either to protect their “normal” lives and loved ones or to disguise their true natures. Sometimes both.
Either way, the idea of an alter-ego comes with certain legal complications, as has been recognized long before the publication of the first comic book. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, first published in 1886, one of the main plot drivers is Jekyll’s pains to ensure that he maintains access to his property when he changes into Hyde. This largely took the form of instructing his servants to pay heed to Hyde and executing a will leaving everything to Hyde should Jekyll disappear.
Legally, there is no reason Jekyll could not do this. The fee simple gives a property owner the right to dispose of his property in any legal way that he sees fit. The problem is not that Jekyll’s design was illegal, but that it was unusual, to the point that people noticed something was up. Indeed, it was the very attempt to create and maintain this alter-ego which led to the discovery of his dual identity. If Jekyll/Hyde had been content to live two entirely different identities with no overlapping property or affairs, i.e. if Hyde had been willing to forego all of Jekyll’s advantages, the story could have ended quite differently.
So the problem is not only in the creation of an alter-ego, but doing so within the bounds of the law in ways that will maintain the integrity of the illusion. Both of these will cause problems on a number of levels.
I. Legal Status
The relationship between one’s “mundane” and “masked” identities is significant. If one starts life as a mundane person and then acquires a masked identity, e.g. Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, things are fairly straightforward, as one already has a full-fledged legal identity. But simply creating a new person out of whole cloth, as one would need to do if one were creating a new cover identity or faking one’s own death, is more difficult. Governments do this for people on a regular basis for things like witness protection programs, espionage, undercover operations, etc., but there are two main facts about this which present problems for our superheros. First, government-created identities are obviously created with government approval, so no laws are being broken. Second, these identities are rarely intended to be used either for significant transactional purposes or for very long, i.e. they are not intended to fully or permanently replace the original identity.
The basic problem then is that to create a new identity without government authorization requires the commission of a number of felonies, potentially including making false immigration statements (18 U.S.C. 1015), identification document fraud (18 U.S.C. 1028), perjury (18 U.S.C. 1621) and numerous related offenses under state law. And trying to live in contemporary society without such documents will be very, very difficult. One cannot buy a car, rent an apartment, get a checking account, or engage in a host of transactions essential to the logistics of mundane life without some form of government identification, identification which a superhero wanting to create a new mundane identity for his masked persona would need to forge. Creating successive false identities all but requires one to engage in illegal activities. So much for being a law abiding citizen.
All of these may seem trivial, but Al Capone was eventually brought down, not for racketeering or the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but for simple tax evasion. And if the illegality is not problem enough in its own right, these sorts of illegalities do tend to attract enough attention to make maintaining a secret identity pretty difficult, particularly if one wishes to maintain some kind of base-level commitment to law and order.
II. Money Laundering
Speaking of taxes, transferring large sums of money without a paper trail is difficult to do legally. Money laundering is a federal offense, and suggestions of financial shadiness tend to attract the attention of prosecutors. Jumping through offshore banks is no guarantee of secrecy: the discipline of forensic accounting exists almost solely to analyze patterns of financial transactions for irregularities. Even cash transactions are no solution, as transactions over $10,000 must be reported to regulators and paying for anything more than $500 with cash will be reported as suspicious. So while the money being “dirty” in some sense, i.e. representing the proceeds of or being used for some unlawful activity (18 U.S.C. 1956) for disguising the origin and ownership of funds to be a felony, simply the attempt to disguise it is likely to raise red flags all over the place, because most of the people engaged in that sort of activity are doing so for nefarious reasons. If our superhero or an artificial “mundane” persona is going to need to spend any money, this poses problems of the sort which could easily trigger an IRS audit. As the Joker observed at one point, “I’m crazy enough to take on Batman, but the IRS? No, thank you!” So again, it seems that our some of our heroes are faced with a difficult choice: maintain their secret identity or live within the bounds of the law, but even breaking the law in this way is no guarantee of success.
III. Evidence and the Sixth Amendment
Unfortunately, unless a hero plans to kill every villain with whom they come into conflict, bringing said villains to justice is actually made a lot more difficult the more a masked hero is involved in the case. It turns out that wearing a particular costume or uniform, which is how superheros and villains are normally identified in comic books, does not actually count as evidence that the person wearing them is, in fact, the same person all the time.
This is significant, because the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment reads “[I]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right. . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The goal of the Confrontation Clause, as stated by the Supreme Court in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), is to “preserve reliability of evidence” by establishing procedures so that “reliability [may] be assessed in a particular manner: by testing in the crucible of cross-examination.”
A witness whose identity cannot be definitively established would likely be useless as a witness. Courts and legislatures have made exceptions to the Confrontation Clause for situations like child witnesses against their abusers, but these are mostly limited to permitting the child, visible to the court, to testify via closed-circuit TV so that they do not have to see the accuser. There is no precedent to suggest that an essentially anonymous person or a person operating under a known or obvious alias would be permitted to testify in court without revealing their actual legal identity. A clever defense attorney could easily point out that we don’t even let witnesses in the witness protection program testify in open court while disguised; why should we let a superhero?
The Sixth Amendment aside, it is not clear that the Federal Rules of Evidence would permit a masked person to testify at all. Federal Rule of Evidence 602 reads, in part, as follows:”A witness may not testify to a matter unless evidence is introduced sufficient to support a finding that the witness has personal knowledge of the matter.” It will be much more difficult to prove that a masked person was a witness to a particular event when there may be no evidence that the masked person on the stand is the same masked person who allegedly saw what he claims to have seen. It is common practice for attorneys to ask a few simple questions such as name, address, age, etc. to establish a witness’ identity before proceeding to elicit testimony. Such questions would be impractical for a masked person to answer without revealing their identity, and a refusal to do that might well cause a judge to exclude their testimony entirely. Again, we don’t let traditional witnesses disguise themselves, and there isn’t any obvious legal reason that a superhero should be an exception to that rule. As the FRE apply to both criminal and civil cases, so this could be a problem even when the Sixth Amendment does not apply. Something like Peter Parker taking pictures of Spiderman’s exploits might help, but again, someone needs to be able to testify as to the veracity of those pictures, and that would mean testifying about their origin under oath.
This is a legal problem inherent to the maintenance of an alter-ego of any sort. Even a person who starts life as a mundane and then dons a mask to fight crime will run into this.
So creating a superhero creating an alter-ego is a bit more legally complicated than it might seem. In addition to the problems of actually creating one in the first place, the logistics of maintaining the persona are significant, especially when trying to do so legally. But even the simplest alter-ego, the normal person who occasionally fights crime as a masked crusader, will run into legal problems if they are called to testify to what they have seen.